Chimps Are Never Tame

The uphappy shooting of a rampaging chimp in the USA is another example of something I’ve talked about a lot in these Newsnotes. When we split from the chimps, our brains got bigger and our bodies got less robust. We also must have acquired a lot of self-control, much as wolf-sized dogs have become much safer than wolves, while giants like the St Bernard are utterly placid. Chimps can do a lot of human tasks, but they remain wild animals.

“For years, Travis had been a local celebrity in his hometown. He featured often on TV adverts, and would pose for photographs performing his favourite tricks: tucking into a filet mignon, dressing himself or using a computer.

“But yesterday the pet chimpanzee went berserk, attacking a friend of his owner’s and causing terrible facial injuries before turning on a police officer who shot him in self-defence.

“The frenzied assault by the chimp led to a police response and subsequent press coverage normally reserved for gun rampages. ‘Furious George!’ was the New York Post’s punning headline, a take on the popular US children’s book series about a precocious primate named Curious George.

“Aged 14, and weighing a formidable 200 pounds, Travis had been brought up to all intents and purposes a human. His owner, Sandra Herold, aged 70, who had raised him since he was an infant, trained him to water the flowers, drink wine, brush his teeth and watch baseball

“As soon as the neighbour arrived, Travis turned on her, maulling her and biting her face, causing serious injuries.

“Herold tried to save her friend by attacking her beloved pet with a kitchen knife, but Travis then went on to attack a police officer in his car. The officer, fearing for his own life, shot several times. Travis limped away.

“By then about a dozen police cars had descended on the scene. Officers traced the animals steps by a trail of blood, and found him back in his cage where he had already died.” [The Guardian]

Interesting to note that the chimp was kept in a cage, despite being able to act the human on occasions. Our closest relatives are much stronger and more robust. Also stupid and vicious.

What’s distinctive about humans is not that we sometimes fight each other but that we mostly don’t, despite living right on top of each other. Another exceptional human trait is that the leader of a group may not be the biggest or strongest, and that a weak old person may be in charge, or at least have considerable authority. The comic-book vision so popular in the USA is of superior humans being superior individual fighters. It has an appeal, obviously – we are not that far from the chimp. But it is a bad misunderstanding of what humanity is about.

From Newsnotes, March 2009, at the Long Revolution website.

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